A Guide to Human Insights for Employer Brands

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

How can we go about getting true human insights to uncover the authentic employer brand of a company? Jonas Fischer is the founder of PeerCulture, a new kind of employee content & research company based in New York. I recently spoke to him about interviewing employees to gain vital information that will help with culture and talent attraction strategy.

Have a listen to the episode below, keep reading for a transcript of our conversation and make sure you subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Tell us about Peer Culture and the story behind it.

Peer Culture is a new employee content and research opportunity and is the best way I can describe it. The idea is new, but it’s very simple. We basically find or identify great employee talent in some of the most competitive industries like tech or finance and media, and we give them a platform to share their personal ideas, experiences, and opinions about working life. So that’s it. We really think that employees that are in the trenches of everyday work have important stories to tell and we don’t really see anyone telling those stories.

So unfortunately, there’s no sexy algorithms or artificial intelligence involved, at least not yet. But I like the idea because it’s simple. So by giving these high-performing employees an opportunity to share their stories, we achieve 3 things.

  1. The first is for the employee. They get to be featured in an interview from a third party. It’s a great personal branding opportunity for them, that they then share with their network. So for Peer Culture we produce the interview and the content, but it’s really up to the employee to market it for us, which I like because you tap into everyone else’s network.
  2. The second benefit is really for the employer. They get a positive brand exposure opportunity from their employee that’s outside of their own media assets, outside of their own channels. So if they’re savvy and if they’re in tune with their employees, it’s an opportunity for them to share an interview of one of their employees that got recognized for their work.
  3. And then the last thing, and the most important thing and really what we base our business on, is we’ve designed all these interview questions based on qualitative research principles. So really the result of conducting all of these one-on-one employee interviews is that we’re creating a continuous qualitative research project for employer brands to get to the attitudes and the values and the behaviors of what the young workforce is really thinking. So the great thing is, as an employer brand, you can go to peerculture.com and read the interviews for free and start to uncover insights of your own based on what your brand is about.

How do the projects work?

What we do is it’s continuous, so we’re always finding people and our model is interesting in that we ask the people that we interview to nominate their peers, which is the idea behind Peer Culture. So they nominate people from other companies, so we’re always interviewing people. How it works is the questions we post on our website are maybe 40% of the interview, and the other 60% of the interview are questions that some of our partners want to know, so we can get more specific and really custom or tailor a qualitative research project based on those objectives.

We have this free version where we post more of the value-driven questions that are relevant to all brands, but then behind the scenes we’re also asking these employees more specific things to help our partners.

When we interview people they’re not in a research mindset. We’re actually interviewing them for a personal branding opportunity. They’re being featured in an interview. So what we get from that is a more honest response and the stories get a little more personal because they’re not sitting in a focus group and they’re not under this shadow of, “I’m doing research and I’m eating a bologna sandwich and getting paid 100 bucks” kind of thing.

Why do human insights matter?

I think the goal for any employer brand, and consumer brand for that matter, is to connect with their audience in a way that goes beyond the rational offering of your product or service or employer brand, and to achieve this meaningful connection I think you need to understand your audience at a deeper level. You have to go from what motivates them to why it motivates them. And I see a lot of brands and a lot of companies, especially companies I’ve worked for in the past, who just didn’t have access to these qualitative in-depth audience insights. They rely on survey data or market research and they have to make the leap themselves.

So what I wanted to do is, I wanted to be able to tap into the belief systems of employees, and their behaviors. So when we talk about human insights, we’re trying to go deeper than that quantitative data to understand the context and the experiences below the surface that most of us already know about.

How do you define empathy at the employer level?

If you are in employer branding, or even marketing for that matter, I think empathy is a hot trend right now and everybody is talking about how to infuse empathy into marketing. I actually came across this thing called the ‘Empathy Index for Businesses’ put out by the Harvard Business Review. It has nothing to do with the report, but basically what they do is they try to calculate all of these different variables to determine how empathetic your company is, and then they tie it back to revenue and business success, so it’s an interesting read. But for us, I thought the interesting thing about our research, when it comes to this topic of empathy, is we don’t ask any questions about empathy. We try to stay away from any kinds of questions that are too prescriptive or that talk about corporate values. We try to ask questions that pull things out of the participants so they can share things and shed light on things that we don’t want to lead them down any path.

So with that, empathy still came up a lot and it came up in a lot of different areas of the research. And a lot of people talked about the things that I think all employer brands know about already, like the need to have a social responsibility, or an environmental responsibility, these things that are at the corporate level. So when we talked about employee level, some of the things that came up beyond the corporate level was this idea of management and leadership, really understanding my day-to-day experience as an employee, and how the decisions they make affect that.

So a phrase that came up in several of our conversations was this idea of “profits over people”. Employees are very sensitive to this notion and it came up a few times, which was interesting because it’s such a specific type of phrase. But they believe that a company is either people-first or they’re profit-first. And it’s interesting for me because I’m a little bit older and some of the people I talked to and I think some of the people listening here will probably roll their eyes a little bit to say, “How could you not be profit-first?” or, “The purpose of a business is to make a profit and these young people don’t really understand what business is about.”

But I think that young people really believe, in their heart of hearts, that if you treat people well, the profits will come. And I think that the empathy index that Harvard put out is trying to prove that, and I think companies like Facebook or TOMMS in the US, I think that’s their philosophy and I think that employees from other companies are very attuned with that. I think it is interesting because, while companies a lot of the times do say they’re people-first, their actions say otherwise. So I think the takeaway for an employer brand is, ‘what are the things you can do to reinforce this idea of empathy on an everyday level?  Not just touting your corporate responsibility, but what are the things you can do every day?’

It definitely helps to be both, but I think this insight really focuses on the employee and in the office. For example, a CEO puts out a memo to the company talking about profits and has nothing to say about what’s going on with the employees, people take that and they see what the company is really about, as opposed to trying to put an empathy lens on internal communications or decisions you make so that you can maybe not just put people over profits, but find a balance for the two.

What are family principles to live and to work by?

I’m not advocating creating a family theme or having an employer brand that pretends that we’re all family, because I don’t think that ever works and that wasn’t the intention of this, and I think most people probably go to work to escape their family. So what the family aspect really came from was, when we do these interviews we ask the employees to send one photo that represents them that we can post with the interview, and we started to get all these photos with family members. And we didn’t tell them if it has to be of you, we didn’t give them any specifications, and maybe 20% of the photos came back with photos of families which included husbands, wives, kids etc and we just thought that was interesting. So we started asking more questions, as we wanted to understand this idea of family and what it meant outside of the blood relations. What we learned was that it’s really about creating a strong community of people who go the extra mile for one another, who care about each other’s well-being.

So this insight is really about how do you cultivate a work environment where there’s a genuine support system for one another, and a mutual respect? And how do you have an appropriate response for both success and failures that work? So thinking of it more as a community that cares about your well-being is really what the family attribute was meant to be.

What does “mentor the person, not the position” mean?

So “Mentor the person, not the position” basically means that the purpose and the idea behind mentorship is shifting. It’s shifting from this idea of teaching the new employees what their role is and how they navigate the corporate structure or the corporate bureaucracy of that company, and it’s shifting more to investing in the relationship with the employee. And that comes from a lot of younger people talking about this idea that they really love the idea of working for a company that has a purpose, but at the same time when they get to work and they figure out what their job is, they want you to connect the dots as well, how does this role connect to that purpose?

I know when I started my job many years ago it was, “What’s my job and how do I get promoted?” and that’s just not what they’re thinking now. I think they’re still trying to figure out how they fit in with the job and with the world and they want to understand how their role affects the bigger picture. And so the human insight we uncovered around mentorship was that the people that had great mentors, they rarely talked about the actual job. They never talked about how the mentor helped them with their job. They always talked about how they impacted their lives, from how to handle themselves at work or how to handle themselves on a personal level, and they talked about how they challenged them and how they led by example. And this came up a lot as well. So it’s this idea of mentorship being more than just helping me do my day-to-day work, for lack of a better word, it’s more of a life coach to help navigate things.

I think for employer brands who have a mentorship program, it makes sense for them to go beyond the obvious of training and beyond just the how to mentor beyond the functional. I think it’s interesting to not assign a mentor right away to a new employee. Maybe wait a few months to start understanding who that employee is and how they operate and what their personality is, and then try to team up mentors and young employees together that are more of a personality fit as opposed to, “Just because you’re in my department I’m assigned to you.”

“A dab of Musk goes a long way” – please elaborate?

Well, it has nothing to do with fragrance and this isn’t a human insight, this is just an interesting thing that came up a lot that we thought we could learn from or share with employer brands. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla and so on, he comes up in interviews in lots of different areas. When people are talking about their role models, the two top role models are usually their parents or a boss or Elon Musk, so it’s very interesting. Sometimes we ask participants what their favorite companies are beyond the one that they work for, and SpaceX and Tesla come up very often.

So we really wanted to dig deep and figure out, “Well, what are the things about Elon Musk that people like or even love, and are there any lessons to be learned from that?” So I can share two lessons that I think are relevant to employer brands.

  1. He has a very lofty vision for all of his companies and it’s inspirational. But the thing about Elon Musk is that he spends most of his time solving problems, like real world problems, like day-to-day problems, and he’s the one that gets things done. So for an employer brand, I think it’s important and it’s necessary to have a strong purpose and a strong reason for being, but I think it’s also equally important to remember the incremental and the smaller things that happen every week or every month that you need to do to continue to reinforce the brand, and to continue to keep the brand relevant.
  2. He invests his net worth into his companies. He goes all-in a 100%, and as an employee that’s special because you have this responsibility that he trusts you with his wealth, with his investment, and you’re working side-by-side with him. So there’s an element of two things. One is he believes in his vision enough to risk it all, and the second is he has chosen you and believes in you to help him fulfill that vision. So it’s pretty powerful.

What employer is getting this right?

Well, I think there are several companies that have amazing corporate cultures based on human insights, but there are the usual suspects like Google and Facebook and Netflix, etc. and I don’t like using them in examples too much because I think those kinds of companies were founded during a time when the whole philosophy of corporate cultures was shifting, and they were able to build their cultures from the ground up with an employee-centric model. So I like talking about the older companies that now have to compete with them, because that’s where it’s interesting. That’s where employer branding gets really interesting for me. Companies like Generic Electric and IBM and Cisco.

But in the UK I like what Virgin does. That might be cheating because they have such a big brand that’s been so popular. But I’ve observed what they’re doing and I like it and I actually went to their site to see how they talk about it. And their grand purpose is changing business for good, which essentially means they put people and the planet alongside profit, which is basically what we’ve been talking about. So I think they get it and I think as far as a company going all-in, I think that they walk the walk and talk the talk from the top down. So yeah, I think the Virgin Group does a really good job.

You could have the best brand strategy and the best implementation plan, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this many times, but if you don’t get buy-in from the leadership and the core influencers at the company, then it’s almost impossible to really execute an employer brand.

What’s up next in this space?

Well, there’s obviously a lot of technologies that I’m not going to talk about because I wanted to figure out how it relates to what we’re doing. I think the next big thing is really figuring out how to properly empower employees to be your advocates. I know that there’s a lot of talk about that right now and I think it’s a very, very big challenge, but I also think it’s probably the biggest opportunity. So today we have things like Glassdoor where they can share their thoughts. But I think that companies need to really give employees the freedom to speak their own truth about the organization. I think everyone feels and knows that there are trust issues with almost every institution from government and media, to corporations. So leaves us with our peers as the people we trust.

I think candidates will trust their peers if the message is delivered in an organic way as opposed to the more scripted testimonials that are going on now. So in 2017 I think the employer brands that win are employers that could figure out how to empower their employees and how to deliver the message in the right way.

Follow Jonas on Twitter @Peer_Culture and subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.


Our newsletter is exclusively curated by our CEO, Jörgen Sundberg, for leaders who make decisions about talent. Subscribe for updates on The Employer Branding Podcast, new articles, eBooks, research and events we’re working on.


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